By Amie Parnes - 03/28/13 09:00 AM EDT
President Obama stumbled toward his endorsement of gay marriage. But gay rights groups say he was still a trendsetter.
Obama’s decision to come out for same-sex marriage — prompted in part by Vice President Biden — accelerated the dramatic shift in public opinion now roiling the Supreme Court and both political parties.
Gay rights groups credit Obama’s decision as opening the floodgates to other Democratic lawmakers, creating a sense this week that history is being made in days, not weeks.
Arguably the must indelible mark Obama will leave his party is a 2016 Democratic field that includes candidates who openly support gay marriage. Hillary Clinton, for example, came out in support of same-sex marriage last week. It is a dramatic shift from 2008, when Obama, Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards all opposed same-sex marriage.
In the last month, six Democratic senators have shifted their positions to support for gay marriage.
"I have wrestled with this issue and thought long and hard about this issue last year," Obama said Wednesday in an interview with Univision.
"You know, in my own personal life, I’ve gotten to know and been very close friends with same-sex couples who are raising children, who are loving and committed to each other," he said. "And for them to be penalized because of their status, is something that I think is inconsistent with our traditions.
"Obviously, public opinion has shifted dramatically just over the last several years," he continued. "And my hope is, is that we will come to the place where everybody, you know, is treated fairly, and treated the same. It doesn’t mean that people for religious reasons may have a different view. I think people should respect everybody’s different opinions on this issue. But when it comes to the law, everybody should be equal before the law.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday that it was clear the country is “seeing a pretty significant change…where an issue related to equality and fairness is getting more prominence.
“I think it is a testament to the character of this country that we’re moving in a direction where we will better fulfill some of the founding principles of the country in terms of treating everyone fairly and equally,” Earnest added. “And what’s notable, I think, about this circumstance is it’s happening really fast. We’re seeing history change right before our eyes.”
Obama was actually slow to endorse gay marriage, and for much of his first term gay rights advocates were irritated he had done too little for their agenda.
That changed dramatically — and possibly accidentally — when Biden said in a May 2012 interview on “Meet the Press” said he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage.
In the days following Biden's comments, pressure mounted on Obama to change his stance on the issue as observers wondered about a split between Biden and Obama.
The president finally admitted that his views had “evolved” in a separate interview later that week, and he became the first president to endorse same-sex marriage. Newsweek’s cover called him the “first gay president.”
Calls for marriage equality have become more commonplace for Obama since then. It was something mentioned repeatedly from the stage of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, and may have helped Obama roll up a victory over Mitt Romney in November.
The most memorable moment of Obama’s second inaugural address was a call for gay marriage.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” he said.
Republicans have struggled to embrace the shift on the issue, putting them in a more precarious position for the 2016 presidential race. Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), who announced his support for gay marriage earlier this month, is the only Republican senator to take that position.
Some in the GOP say Obama’s position on gay rights conveniently changed when he was up against reelection and was dealing with an increasingly angry sector of his base.
Republican strategist Ken Lundberg says Obama did not pave the way for Democrats on the issue since “in fact, he threw the issue in their laps” when he endorsed gay marriage last year.
“Based on principle or politics, the president's reversal came after nearly four years in office and during a tough reelection campaign,” Lundberg said. “Given his history on the question, the timing still leaves some suspect."
Some Republicans have called for more openness in their party. In a speech to conservatives earlier this month, Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who is expected by many to run for president in 2016, said the Republican Party is often associated “with being anti-everything.”
“Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on,” Bush said during his address at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
While GOP politicians are worried their party isn’t inclusive enough, gay rights groups say Obama has changed his party’s image for the better.
“The president's legacy on LGBT issues won't just be about legislative or policy accomplishments. It's also going to be about inclusion,” said Denis Dison, vice president for communications at the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. “This White House has had the benefit of hundreds of openly LGBT appointees and staffers — people whose counsel and experience helped shaped an extraordinarily LGBT-friendly administration.
One top gay rights advocate added: “No other president in history has done as much for this community.”